The seventeenth century cases of nine women and one man in the north of England, executed for apparently murdering 10 people using unspecified powers of witchcraft is a famous local story. The star of television dramas such as Silk and Shameless never expected, however, to be spending her Hallowe'en performing a politically charged reclamation of the tale.
That's exactly what Peake will be doing tonight at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, as part of its latest after-hours event, Hallowe'en: By Night.
Peake fronts experimental electronic pop collective The Eccentronic Research Council to perform sound poem 1612 Underture.
"The Pendle Witches had always been part of the folklore when I was growing up," Peake says. "No one had ever explained to me their story properly, so I just deduced there was a hill not too far away where witches on broomsticks met to cause mayhem, which I thought was just a fairytale. It was only in my teens when my mother told me there was a woman at her place of work who was a descendant of the Pendle witch, Alice Nutter, I bought myself a book on the subject and started to read up."
Peake's involvement in 1612 Underture came about after being contacted by Adrian Flanagan, who, alongside former member of The All Seeing I, Dean Honer, forms the backbone of ERC.
"We had a brief conversation about our respective music tastes," Peake remembers, "and then he asked if I would appear in his video, which involved donning a rabbit suit and charging around Kersal Moor in Salford. We stayed in touch, mainly because I was hoping to steal the film footage from him. Then the next thing I know I'm embroiled in some prog, psychedelic, electronic fiasco."
Flanagan was fascinated by the Pendle witch trials, and, following a road trip the pair took to the villages around Pendle Hill, Flanagan wrote 1612 Underture just as the 2011 UK riots were taking place.
"You read about these women," he says, "and you see how horrifically they were treated, and how they were used as scapegoats by the government. Then you start seeing parallels with what's going on now. It won't be long before this government will be taking us all to Gallows Hill for having an opinion."
1612 Underture was released as an album last year to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the trials, but it was never meant to be performed live.
"I find the work with The ERC extremely exposing," Peake says. "In theatre you include the audience under the guise that you're trying to get them to believe you have forgotten they are there. Speaking directly to them is surreal for me. It is far more personal and far more difficult. It takes a certain personality to be a great front person, and I think I'm cut from a different cloth. I wanted to act to get far away from who I am."
Despite Peake's reservations, her collaboration with ERC remains ongoing. A new album has been recorded, while a single, a homage to electronic music pioneer and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire entitled Maxine's Dream, has just been released. Following her first radio play, broadcast last year, Peake's latest work, about Anne Scargill's occupation of Parkside Colliery in 1993, is broadcast on Radio 4 on November 4. As with 1612 Underture, she is exploring a hidden history of women.
"Women are still victimised for being different," she says, "for not conforming. We like to bandy the word 'mad' about when describing a woman who may be being outspoken or passionate. If a woman has a strong sense of her sexuality she's still labelled a slag. I feel we still have to battle to be taken seriously. If a woman has an opinion she's described as feisty. This infuriates me. If a woman is being strong-willed, outspoken, brave, emotional and fearless then she is being a woman, nothing more, nothing less."
Witch hunts, in Peake's opinion, are as prevalent as they ever were.
"There are woman in this country being murdered in honour killings," she observes, "female babies being murdered because they are not male. The biggest witch hunt at the moment is the Tory party's demonisation of the working class, whipping middle England up into a frenzy with the myth of hoards of scroungers bleeding the taxpayer dry, of immigrants coming over to take their jobs and homes. The bedroom tax, the gagging law, the list goes on and on."
The Eccentronic Research Council and Maxine Peake perform as part of Hallowe'en: By Night at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh tonight.